What Does It Take To Be A Computer Technician?

I had someone ask me the other day about what it takes to be a computer technician.  She worked as some kind of job retraining person and was curious as to what kind of skills you needed to have.  People ask me this question a lot, actually, so here we go.

The general public have a tendency to lump people who work in information technology fields together but as with medicine, there are distinct disciplines.  Major disciplines in the IT industry include:

  • Computer Scientists – They conduct research to expand the theoretical limits of computing.  They are the most highly trained and skilled in our industry, often possessing multiple university degrees.
  • Electronic Engineers – The highly trained people who apply that theory to design the microchips and electronics that make computers go.
  • Administrators – Take care of networks as large as the Internet itself.  More senior ones design and implement these networks, less experienced ones take care of the day-to-day operation of the email servers, application servers, web servers and the like.
  • Programmers – Responsible for designing and creating software, such as the web browser you are viewing this post with.  More experienced ones will plan and design the software, younger ones actually enter in the instructions (“coding”).  Many do both.
  • Web Designers – The folks who create web pages.  Highly skilled ones are programmers, network administrators and artists, all at the same time.  Once closely associated with programming, the discipline has become quite distinct in recent years.
  • Technical Support – Are the poor suckers who answer the phone when you call the support line.  It is the least skilled of our disciplines and has the lowest pay, but it is an effective and humbling way to start your career in computing.
  • Computer Technicians – The people who fix broken computers and other related computer devices as well as upgrade and configure them.  We are the industry’s front line and its muscle.  If you want a medical analogy, think of a general practitioner.

As with any industry, there is some overlap in the fields, and computer technicians in particular tend pick up skills from the other fields, especially system administration.  In many organizations the system administrator is also the computer technician.

Are There Any Barriers To Entry?

There are no standards or regulatory bodies in our field.  There’s no medical board or bar association or anything like that.  There are no government mandated restrictions on who can be a computer technician.  There is no officially accepted level of education.  The field is dominated by white males, but ethnic background, gender or social status have no bearing on learning and applying the trade.  In fact, in larger shops the techs dearly wish that more women would be in their departments, though perhaps not for the right reasons.

Now while there are no formal restrictions, a computer technician is immediately expected to produce results and must have the skills required to do so.  An incompetent manager can roll along in a job for years — an incompetent computer technician will only last a month or two before he is fired.

What Does A Computer Technician Do?

As mentioned above, the short answer is that a computer technician fixes, upgrades and configures computers.  The long answer is more complicated.

Unlike tech support, a computer technician is right on the front line, right in the thick of it.  A broken machine is right in front of him.  The customer can often see, talk and interact with him.  He will frequently have to explain in simple terms what is wrong or what the customer did wrong with his computer.  A computer technician often faces problems he has never encountered before and has received no particular training to solve.  He must be able to formulate solutions on the fly.

Some computer technicians specialize in very large or very small computers, but the bulk of computer technicians work on the general purpose computers found in many offices and homes, both desktops and laptops.  There is no formal name for the speciality, computer technician is as good as any.

The primary activities of a computer technician are:

  • Communicating with the customer, co-worker or management
  • Reading to find solutions to the problems he must solve
  • Reading to keep up on what hardware and software is current
  • Installing, upgrading, configuring and fixing software
  • Installing and configuring simple networks, attaching computers to existing networks
  • Replacing malfunctioned components in computers
  • Performing maintenance tasks on computers like hardware upgrades and cleaning
  • Fabricating simple repair parts

It will vary from job to job, but I would say that computer technicians spend two-thirds of their time installing, upgrading, configuring and fixing software.  Computer technicians are often required to provide technical support, particularly if they work for a computer services firm.

Computer technicians tend to work a lot of overtime but are often salaried so they don’t benefit from it.  They also must sometimes work at strange times like evenings and weekends, times when the computers aren’t in use.  Some must carry pagers, in case they are needed, though not to the same extent as network admins.  On the upside, many corporate environments allow their Information Technology staff to make their own hours, as long as they put in their 40 per week.  On the downside, computer technicians can’t work from home like some of the admins do, they must be in front of the broken stuff to apply their skills.

In a small shop environment the technician will report to his boss, who is also likely one of the workers.  In a small corporate environment the technician is often alone and will also have the duties of system administrator and tech support.  He will often report directly to management.  In a large corporate environment computer technicians are typically at the disposal of the network admins and report to them.

Physical Skills

The work isn’t all that physically demanding, but it’s not like driving a desk either.  Average cardiovascular fitness is adequate — computer technicians don’t have to run much.  But you can’t be a weakling, as computers can be heavy.  You must be able to lift and carry heavy things, sometimes over 30 kg in mass.  Worse, you often have to lift things improperly because of where they are located.  You also need to be fit enough to crawl under tables and desks and squeeze around furniture; people are never kind enough to put their computers in the middle of an empty room.  Having a bad back or bad neck is recipe for disaster.

Technicians generally need to have use of both their arms and legs and must be able to manipulate tiny parts with their fingers.  Steady hands are a plus.  Your vision should be close to 20/20 or corrected to be that way.

Field technicians are also sometimes expected to climb up things and crawl into small spaces (often to find networking equipment).  Not being able to do these things is a problem.

Academic Skills

No particular schooling is required but employers are often looking for:

  • Completion of high school
  • Completion of some kind of college
  • Professional certifications that are often acquired during college: A+, MCSA, MCSE and that sort of thing

A university education is generally not a requirement and if you happen to have a degree in Computer Science you are aiming too low if you want to be a computer technician.  In reality, none of the above academic endorsements actually make for a good computer technician, they only get you hired.  The actual academic skills you need to have are:

  • Superior learning skills
  • Superior problem solving ability
  • Good memory
  • High-school level math and physics
  • Understanding of basic electrical theory
  • Understanding of basic electronic theory
  • Understanding of basic computing theory
  • Literate in your region’s primary language.  In particular, you must be able to read, and comprehend what you are reading fairly quickly
  • Have a good grasp of English, even if it not your region’s primary language

As mentioned above, computer technicians are frequently required to solve problems they have never encountered before. This will require you to read through manuals and online resources quickly to formulate a solution.  You need to be able to remember what you have found so you can apply it later. As with any knowledge trade, you will be required to learn new things constantly.  This never ends.  You must have the skill and the desire to learn new things for the rest of your career.

Simple mathematical and physics problems sometimes crop up, as do problems related to electricity.  You need to know what basic electronic components are called because sometimes you need to replace them, and even though you’ll never have to actually fix a microchip or write a computer program, you need to have a basic understanding of how microchips work and why software does what it does.

Why should you know some English?  Because a considerable amount of the World Wide Web uses it and the Web is one of your best resources.  Don’t believe me?  Go to Wikipedia and tell me which language version has the most articles.  English is the lingua franca of computing.  If you’re not a native English speaker, I know this might seem unfair, but that’s just the way it is.  Besides, if you managed to get this far in the post, I’d say your English is more than good enough.

Being a computer technician is essentially a trade, but currently it is not treated as such by schools.  Still, the best way to apply the skills above and be a computer technician is to simply start doing it.  Ideally, you would apprentice under a master like tradesmen do.  In my experience, the process of turning an apprentice into a journeyman takes about two years of full-time work under the supervision of a master, twice that if the apprentice is self-taught.

Practical Skills

A computer technician should have the following practical skills before he embarks on his training:

  • Most obviously, the ability to operate a wide range of computer equipment
  • A superior understanding of how to use modern operating systems.  For most people this means Microsoft Windows, but some will have to know how to use MacOS, Linux and other operating system products.
  • A superior understanding of how to effectively mine information out of online resources like search engines, forums, newsgroups and blogs, but also out of offline resources such as manuals.
  • Ability to type — the faster, the better.
  • Ability to safely and effectively use hand tools, particularly screwdrivers.  You need to be able to recognize a wide variety of screw drive types from Phillips to security Torx.
  • Ability to use small powered tools like drills.
  • Basic metal working skills like cutting, filing and bending.
  • Ability to wire simple electrical circuits and pull cable.
  • Basic electronic skills like wiring and soldering.
  • Basic understanding of the use of audio visual hardware like cameras and microphones.
  • Basic fabrication skills like gluing or screwing things together.
  • Ability to dismantle simple mechanical things and put them back together without a manual.
  • Ability to speak clearly on a telephone.
  • Knowledge of WHMIS.  Computer techs sometimes have to handle chemicals.
  • Knowledge of basic first aid.  Any one who works in a shop should know first aid.

Some other skills which are not required but help:

  • Ability to drive a car.  Even techs who work for a single company often have to drive to different locations.
  • Ability to count in binary and hexadecimal to at least 256.  Now and again you have to enter values into computers using these numbering systems.
  • Knowledge of how to use ancient operating systems like DOS.
  • Ability to write simple scripts and programs, even if it is a simple language like BASIC.
  • Ability to understand and write simple HTML.
  • A basic understanding how digital data is created, stored and turned back into analog data.  This might sound obvious, but a lot of techs don’t know this.
  • Ability to passably play video games.  A lot of people use their computers for this and it is helpful to understand why.
  • Mastery of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet.  Computer product codes and licence numbers are often strings of numbers and letters.  This is the best way of relaying those things to someone on a telephone.
  • Ability to use an office telephone system.
  • Ability to use various office machines, photocopiers, fax machines and the like.
  • Ability to draw figures and print clearly.
  • Knowing how to read a mechanical diagram or a blueprint.
  • Knowledge of electronic work, like how to design and build simple circuits
  • Knowledge of electrical work like how to wire a wall socket, ability to recognize various plugs, fuses and wires.
  • A working knowledge of the law.  Questions of law are becoming more frequent in computing these days.
  • A working knowledge of accounting.  Computers are most often used for accounting.
  • A knowledge of ergonomics.

What Should A Computer Technician Look and Act Like?

This varies from office to office but here are some guidelines.  As for you, I recommend:

  • You should be clean.  Nobody likes a stinky person crawling under their desk.
  • You should be acceptably groomed.  You can get away with having long hair and not shaving for a few days but if you look like a real slob no one will take you seriously.
  • Your tattoos are OK as long as they aren’t offensive.
  • Your piercings shouldn’t be too crazy.  Keep the ones on your ears; small studs on your nose and eyebrows are acceptable too, but for heaven sakes get rid of the one through your tongue.  You are a technician, not a porn star.
  • Keep your fingernails short.  You’ll just break them if they are long.
  • Finger and wrist jewelry tends to get damaged in this line of work.  Simple rings are fine, though they will get scuffed up.  I personally wear my wedding band on a chain around my neck.

As for how to behave, keep in mind that this is a service industry, and one which deals with things that people get unusually frustrated with:

  • Try not to swear too much in front of the customer (I know this is hard).
  • Say “please” and “thank you”, “sir” and “ma’am” and all that kind of stuff.
  • Try not to be confrontational.  People get high-strung when their computers are busted.  Getting in someone’s face only makes things worse.
  • Smile.  People like that.
  • Be conversational.  People get nervous around tradesmen who don’t talk much.
  • Be reassuring.  Customers can get quite upset when their data is at stake.
  • Be verbose.  People like to know what is going on, it makes them feel like they are “in the loop”.  So tell them what you are up to, even if they are unlikely to understand.
  • Try not to sound like a yokel.  You are a computer technician, after all.
  • Try not to sound like a know-it-all.  People hate that.  In any industry.

As for what to wear, the ideal clothing for a computer technician is:

  • Long jeans and a short sleeved shirt.
  • Boots

Even if you are a girl.  Especially if you are a girl.  Paris Hilton doesn’t look like she can change a light bulb. Rosie the Riveter does.  You won’t be taken seriously as a computer technician if you dress like a princess or a chav, so dress like you work for a living.

Dressing this way is also practical.  Computers and the environments they operate in are often dirty and your clothes sometimes get damaged; you should basically be dressing like an electrician.   Some employers will expect you to dress “business-like”.  If so, dress in business casual.  Dockers are preferable to actual dress pants because they don’t rip as easily.  Black jeans are often sufficient.  Don’t wear a nice shirt or blouse – it will be stained after a few months.  Never wear a skirt (think about it, girl, you’re crawling under people’s desks!)  Never wear a tie.  Ties get caught in fans and things.  If your employer insists on you wearing a tie make sure you have a dependable tie clip.  Better yet, wear a bow tie.

Boots are practical because they keep your feet safe from falling computer bits.  I used to wear trainers a lot and that lasted right up until I dropped a 40 pound fileserver on my toe.  In an office environment you can almost always get away with wearing Doc Martens.  If you are expected to go into industrial or construction environments, you must have green tag boots (and any other safety equipment specified).  Ever stepped on a nail?  The safety inspector won’t cut you any slack just because you are the “computer guy”.  He will fine both your employer and you.

What Are The Occupational Hazards?

Computers aren’t all that dangerous.  Expect to receive cuts, pinches and gouges, typical of any industry that uses hand tools.  Desktop computers sometimes have unfinished metal edges inside and cuts from these are quite common.  Circuit boards can also be quite sharp.  Back injury from lifting is a risk.  Electric shock happens now and again, but the voltages involved are rarely greater than household current.

Computers contain metals like mercury and lead, and chemicals like PBDEs, all of which are hazardous to people’s health.  Computers sometimes give off noxious odours.  Computers are mostly air cooled and collect large amounts of dust that computer technicians must clean out — typically without a mask or respirator. Most health studies on computers have focused on ergonomic concerns and very little study has been done on long term health effects caused by the chemicals present in computers.

Independent computer technicians often have stress-related issues because of their relentless schedule, as do the techs in understaffed IT departments.  This can mitigated by taking time away from work as required.

Important Social Considerations

If you are very religious or get offended easily, you may want to rethink a career in IT, especially if it involves personal computers.  Queers, kinks, bigots, people with unusual lifestyle choices, strange hobbies, or fetishes all rely heavily on computers to communicate with others who have similar tastes.  You have to fix their computers too.  Pornography is a common thing on computers and you will invariably find it, even if you are not looking.  It is your job to fix the computers, not to pass judgement on other people’s tastes or lifestyle.  If you can’t accept that, you have no place in this line of work.

Computer technicians are frequently trusted with access to sensitive personal information.  You have a duty to protect this private data at all costs.  You also have a duty to not go rooting through customer data unless asked, even if you suspect they might be up to something naughty (with the exception of child pornography – you are required by law to report it).  If you are the kind of person who’s curiosity always gets the better of you, being a computer tech may not be for you.

Like network administrators, computer technicians, particularly ones in corporate environments, are sometimes asked to do things of questionable morality like install keyloggers or open other people’s files and email.  There are very few laws in your favour in this regard, and IT departments are rarely unionized.  You may not be able to refuse these questionable tasks without losing your job.  In a perfect world this would not happen, but unfortunately we live in this imperfect one.

Girls, you will always be out numbered by the boys in the IT department, that’s just the way it is.  Often you are the only girl, but don’t let it intimidate you.  In my experience, computer technicians will judge you based on the strength of your kung fu, not your sex.  They are far less likely to be jerks than men in other trades, though perhaps they might wistfully imagine you were a different hacker.  Pay it no mind.  Remember also that Grace Hopper was one of the greatest hackers of all time; no guy ever questioned her kung fu.

People in all of the information technology fields have a well deserved reputation of telling people all about their work.  But unlike many other jobs, acronym-laden computer shop stories often only make sense to other computer people and are not terribly interesting to family and friends who don’t work in the industry.  Gotta watch out for that.

….

Well, that’s about all the important things I can think of related to doing this job.  I’m sure there is more.  Information Technology is a demanding, constantly changing field and the computer technician is the grunt who keeps it all ticking away.  The work can be stressful at times, but it is never boring, and there’s always a new challenge around the corner.  It is also has a fair bit of job security — you can outsource tech support, programmers and admins, but you can never outsource the guy with the screwdriver.

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10 Responses to What Does It Take To Be A Computer Technician?

  1. Anonymous says:

    my name is jomo and i love woking with computers .For me this was great to now some of these things .i attend a high school in jamacia thanks for all this info on this job .

  2. h0p3z says:

    This job is so hard sorry, i have the bug stress anyday when i go to the job. A server crash, no one are working and are waiting for you, and ask you question, and you dont know why the most of the time how much time this will take and why this bug happen. The boss loose money and he is angry. You will be never sure of nothing in this job. Your alone the most of the time (im a technian on the road), others technican in the company are in the same situation of you the most of the time and cant help. Ho my friends that job is not a funny one, deadline, angry person and person dont want to pay, bug who come back one day after… and so much more. So if you are with a team in a big industry, ok you laugh because you having ressources, but go out alone on littles company on yourself and see. You have to like problems, not one or two problem in a day but all the day, and the most the time the night too, because company just work the day… Its a job to burn yourself. Im so burned after 5 years, i feel the burn-out coming ;0. I do this job because the time is going so fast and for the challenge i have each day, but i think they will have me in one or two years.

    The school and the job are not the same things jomo.

  3. Sesimie says:

    This article made my day!!

    One thing i’d like to know….an average salary worldwide for IT technicians.

    I Assume this should be higher than an electrician…but with so many hats to wear these days IT Techs tend to get the short end of the time stick :(

    Sesimie
    IT Technician (15 years)

  4. cobolhacker says:

    I have no idea what the average salary of a computer tech is. In my experience, electricians make more than me, but I’m self employed and not such a good example in that regard.

  5. Casey Hess says:

    What does it take to become a computer technician?

  6. steve says:

    Thanks for the info. iam studying to get my A+ cert great article

  7. Jess says:

    I have a friend with a degree and a Masters in computer science and I believe he is a computer technician. I do suspect that he is capable of far more than repairing computers but he loves it. I doubt that’s all he does, I know he goes off on Microsoft training courses all the time and he was going on about vmware the other day, didn’t understnad a word he was saying.

    But he’s happy enough as a computer technician. He may well have been proving something to himself with the degree and the masters. Even with those, he had to work for free for a long while. Any job he went for wanted previous experience.

  8. This can be this type of great resource that you are offering also, you have away without cost. I spend time experiencing internet sites in which comprehend the value of providing the prime learning resource without cost. I truly loved looking at your post. Thanks!

  9. Amber says:

    This article was very helpful. I’m in highschool at the moment, and I was debating about where I wanted to take myself. Computers have always came very naturally to me, and I love dealing with them.
    I know now that I want to make this a career!

  10. Holly says:

    I found this article to be hugely interesting and as a computer technician I work hard not to confuse my customers with technical jargon so that they can understand what the problem is with their computer!

    I also think it is important to check out the technicians qualifications and you want to look for proof that they have attended CCNA training courses and the like in order to make sure they are up to date with their abilities.

    Good luck to all you budding IT fanatics! :)

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